By Brad Cook | February 28, 2007

I always find it interesting how some movies, even those that win the Best Picture Academy Award, simply fade into obscurity, while others stand the test of time. Is anyone out there pining for a “Terms of Endearment” or “Out of Africa” Special Edition? Meanwhile, a film like “Gandhi” is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1982, considering how it demonstrates that old axiom: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Watching Hindus and Muslims engage in a civil war after India’s independence in the movie, I was struck by the similarity to what is happening right now in Iraq.

Which begs the question, of course: Where is the Gandhi to show the Iraqis the way out of their mess? Hell, where is the American Gandhi who can extricate us from that mess? It’s easy to think that someone like him only comes along once every few generations, but I think the problem is that our media-saturated culture won’t allow someone like him to ever exist again. After all, Gandhi said some not-so-nice things about black South Africans when he was in that country during the late 1800s, but his struggle to win Indian independence dominated newspapers and newsreels when he came to international prominence a couple decades later.

Today, we’d have talking heads on the 24-hour cable news channels dissecting everything he wrote and said from childhood to the present day, thus turning the focus from righting a wrong to explaining why he said something 20 years previous. And, of course, the context would be lost, and everyone would care about nothing but short sound bites, having better things to do than actually understand what was really going on. In Gandhi’s day, the media coverage was such that reporters actually focused on what was really going on, and he was able to combine that with his passive resistance doctrine to turn public sentiment against the British. It’s no wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. did the same thing in the 1960s, realizing that photos and footage of people having fire hoses turned on them would do more damage to staunch segregationists than any weapon ever could.

Director Richard Attenborough obviously still reveres Gandhi, as his commentary shows. His film is certainly one worthy of showing to history classes, and Attenborough helps explain some bits of history that he didn’t make explicit in the story. He also gets into some behind-the-scenes anecdotes, along with explanations of why he included certain things but excluded others, and so forth. It’s a good track, with very few lapses into silence.

On disc two, Sony ported over the extras from the previous DVD release, which include four vintage newsreel clips, a photo montage, a text piece that includes quotes from Gandhi, and an interview with Ben Kingsley. The newsreels, which include some brief moments of him talking, are fascinating glimpses into history. Kingsley doesn’t show up in any of the other featurettes, but the 20-minute interview with him does a good job of covering the necessary ground. Ah, Ben, how did you wind up in such drek as “Bloodrayne” and “Species”?

The new materials on this release include a series of short featurettes. I prefer one documentary that covers everything, rather than watching brief pieces with a start-and-stop feel to them, but these featurettes cover everything, from the film’s inception, to set design and filming, to the legacy left behind by the movie. “In Search of Gandhi” covers Attenborough’s early exposure to Gandhi as a child and how he was approached to make the movie.

Under “Designing Gandhi,” we have three micro-featurettes, each under five minutes, that explain how production designer Stuart Craig put together Gandhi’s ashram and the huge tent where the Indian National Congress meets, along with how he found the period trains used in the movie. “Madeleine Slade: An Englishwoman Abroad” discusses the woman who came to live with Gandhi, and how Attenborough came to cast Geraldine James in the film. Watching all of these featurettes, it’s amazing how much most of the principal cast members, not just Ben Kingsley, resembled their historical counterparts.

We also have “Reflections on Ben,” which gets into how Kingsley was cast (as great as Alec Guinness was, I don’t think he would have worked in the role), “Shooting an Epic in India,” which discusses the difficulties faced making the film in such a large country, and “The Funeral,” which explains how they put together that huge funeral scene for the beginning of the movie. Today, the background would be filled in with CG effects, but back then they had to actually find that many extras. How quaint, eh?

Under “Interviews,” in addition to the aforementioned piece with Kingsley, we also have two short “From the Director’s Chair” clips with Attenborough talking about the casting and the musical score. Finally, we have some vintage lobby cards, the film’s five-minute trailer, and a map of India with a timeline along the bottom, enabling you to click on a year and see where Gandhi was and what he was doing on a particularly eventful date.

And there you have it. If you don’t have a definitive idea of who Gandhi was when you’re done viewing all of that material, then I don’t know what to tell you. As I said, I wish all of the documentary materials were edited together in one long piece, but, other than that, I think Sony pretty much exhausted all there is to say about this film. At least until they want to milk it again with a Blu-ray release for its 30th anniversary or something.

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